The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Derek Watt to a pretty big contract for a fullback, and a big part of Derek Watt’s value is as a Special Teams player. His brother J.J. Watt complained that his brother Derek Watt was left off of the Pro-Bowl ballot as a Special Teams (ST) player, and he was right to do so, not only did Derek tie the Steelers own Tyler Matakevich with 16 ST tackles, but he also shows up on film consistently being in the right spot and winning his assignments.
First off, Derek Watt played on 5 of the 6 ST units for the Chargers, everything but the FG and XP block teams. He played in prominent positions in those formations as well, as the wingback (just outside the TE and back 1 yard) on field goals, extra points and punts, and the right end (the guy to the right in the second row of blockers) on kickoff returns.
In this first part of the film review w are going to look at his kickoff and punt roles, as Derek Watt tied for lead in the NFL in ST tackles in 2019.
Getting to the ball
D. Watt recorded most of his tackles on kickoffs, accounting for 9 of the Chargers 41 tackles on kickoffs for an impressive 22.0% of team tackles. On kickoff coverage he shows a great sense of spacing and sealing his lane when he’s the alley defender, while also routinely running over blockers to make a tackle when he’s in the role that used to be a wedge buster, running right at the play and taking out blockers.
Like this return.
Derek Watt is third from the top of the screen, he trails the guys on either side of him and heads right into the middle of the field.
Watt goes right to the ball, knocks a blocker back into the path of the return, and mops up a stumbling Paris Campbell for one of his 16 ST tackles. He ran over and through a lot of blockers on kickoffs.
For the Steelers, that spot (on either side of the field) was manned by Ulysees Gilbert III early in the season as well as Tyler Matakevitch, Benny Snell and Trey Edmunds, Snell was the only one to not record at least 4 tackles.
I’m going to go straight from this play into punt coverage, because his job on punts is more complex and is similar enough in reading and defending lanes, and Watt is great at it on both punts and kicks.
Sealing off the outside
First off, a simple punt with no return that does a great job of showing Derek Watt’s job on these punts. Watt is to the left of the screen, behind the TE
Derek Watt’s job as the wing back is to protect against a punt block attempt from the outside, and then to get up-field and seal the outside against a return. Most punt returns go outside, and that outside rush is one of the main ways teams go for a punt block, so his job is very important. You can see him read the lack of rush, then get outside to contain any return from getting outside to the wide side of the field.
Let’s look at some plays from the Steelers where they gave up that outside lane.
Watch the left side of the Steelers, Bennie Snell and Anthony Chickillo.
Chickillo sees Snell getting blocked inside and smartly goes outside of him. Snell gets buried in the middle of the field, and Chickillo filling Snell’s outside contain role is too far inside, bites on the misdirection and the returner is able to get outside him easily to gain 8 more yards of field position. He needs to be on the outside of that lane, run straight down the outside of the numbers and attack to the middle of the field.
Trey Edmunds is the wing back to the right side of the screen.
This time Edmunds is the wing back, and he gets outside, but he pinches in, even though he’s the defender farthest outside. The returner gets outside of him and it’s another 15+ yards before the returner is brought down.
Before you blame this on Danny Smith, look at this punt from week 1, when Roosevelt Nix and Ulysees Gilbert III were both active.
Roosevelt Nix and Jaylen Samuels are the wing backs. Both are in the right spots and contain the run from getting outside,with Artie Burns (gunner to the right of screen) keeping his outside arm free as he is blocked. Samuels does a great job, after he gets off his blocker, of staying on the outside of the lane and attacking only after the returner has committed to going inside.
Now on to Derek Watt. I looked through a ton of punts, and you could make a teaching video about how to play wing back on a punt from his film. His blocking is technically sound and effective, he gets out of traffic efficiently, and he never gives up the outside of his lane.
Derek Watt is #34, wing back to the right side of the screen.
Unlike Benny Snell above who got pushed and then sealed to the inside, Watt comes back in this play, running out towards his blocker to make sure he can’t be pushed too far inside. He often would come out and push his blocker, making sure he could control his lane. Here he looks like he is going to do that, but sees the Chicago Bear standing behind the play and realizes all he has to do is close the gap between himself and that player to stop the return, and he does.
Even when he got pushed inside off the snap, Watt always remained conscious of preventing returners from getting outside. Derek Watt is on the right.
Here he gets pushed into the middle of the play, and the return goes away from him, but as his team mates start heading to the ball D. Watt keeps himself in position to shut down any reverse to his side, and while he had help here, it is good to see that kind of awareness no matter what is going on.
D. Watt on the right side again.
You can see the Packers intentionally seal Watt to the inside to start the play, yet even as he switches roles, he still defends the play to the outside of his lane, staying roughly two steps to the right of the player waiting for the ball, and when the returner tries to get outside, Watt barely has to change his trajectory to make the tackle. This play looks easy, like the returner ran right to him. And that’s what happened, because Watt was in the right spot, he made the play easy for himself.
But he can make harder plays too. Watt is on the right.
Three Chiefs get in on blocking Derek Watt in this play, and yet he’s the only Charger to get a hand on Mecole Hardiman, and he prevents a TD. This is a well executed outside return, but Derek Watt ruins it by beating every obstacle in his path and getting into the right lane to force Hardiman out of bounds. Combining the physicality and determination to go through opposing players and his well developed awareness of where to be on each kick makes Derek Watt one of the best kick and punt cover players in the NFL.
I know this is a lot of focus on punt coverage, but it is important with the size of his contract to understand how good Derek Watt is on these plays, and he shows the same traits covering kickoffs as well. Derek Watt isn’t just replacing Roosevelt Nix’s role on these units, he’s an upgrade, and that isn’t selling Nix short, Derek Watt is just that good. I don’t know if he’ll be the captain like Nix was, but on the field, covering punts and kicks, he’s an upgrade.